Developer shares his vision for new bowling alley in Oak Bluffs

Sam Dunn hopes to have a family oriented bowling alley up and running in Oak Bluffs by 2015. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Pushing through a development, any kind of development, on Martha’s Vineyard is akin to running a permitting gauntlet. Architect/developer Sam Dunn is undeterred by the challenge.

At the October 21 meeting of Oak Bluffs selectmen, Mr. Dunn presented preliminary plans for a two-story, 15,000-square-foot bowling alley, restaurant, bar, and game room, to replace the old laundromat on Uncas Avenue — the long vacant, massive yellow pink elephant on the corner, across from ‘A’ gallery.

“I have to ask you, are you crazy?” joked selectman and restaurateur Michael Santoro, referring to the years of hearings and myriad revisions Mr. Dunn was required to make to build the Tisbury Marketplace on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, and to later expand it. “Are you are ready to do that again?”

“You know, some people just like to flagellate themselves,” Mr. Dunn said, smiling.

In addition to building the Tisbury Marketplace, Mr. Dunn also renovated the Woodland Center on State Road in 2006. All of Mr. Dunn’s properties have been at or near full occupancy since completion.

But the bowling alley will be his first foray into Oak Bluffs. To build it, he will have to navigate an alphabet soup of permitting bodies and groups that includes the zoning board of appeals, the Copeland District, the Cottage City Association, the Historic Commission, get through the Martha’s Vineyard Commission which has designated the building a development of regional impact (DRI), and also win the approval of the neighboring residents.

In a recent conversation with the Times in his office above the Vineyard Film Society — one of the biggest success stories for year-round Island entertainment in years — Mr. Dunn shared his vision for the new project, which has already created a buzz around town.

“There’s a history of bowling on the Island,” he said, with a hint of southern drawl. “It’s been at least 30 years since there was a bowling alley here. It’s an idea whose time has come. There are not too many pieces of property in that zone with that potential. At one point somebody said ‘bowling’ and a light bulb went off in my head,” he said.

Mr. Dunn has two partners in the project — landowner Barry Reeves, and his advisor, Bob Sawyer. “Bob knows everything there is to know about Massachusetts real estate,” said Mr. Dunn, holding up a book Mr. Sawyer wrote on the topic.

“People on the Island are afraid of change, and I completely understand that,” he said. “But at this point, I think there’s a track record of the projects that I’ve built. These are quality things that haven’t had negative impacts. When we built this place [Vineyard Film Society], there was a great response. In the winter, people come here, regularly, because Richard [Paradise] does a great job, but it’s also a cultural outlet.”

Family friendly

As he did at the selectmen’s meeting, Mr. Dunn, a grandfather in his 70s, stressed that the bowling alley would be designed to have multi-generational appeal. “We want this to be a family entertainment center,” he said. “We envision people of all ages using this place. We envision kids having their birthday parties there, and we envision families going to bowl there. We’re going to have a children’s game room, with wholesome games, where they actually have to do something, and walk around — ping pong, shuffleboard, foosball, stuff like that. We see this in the wintertime as being a real source of business for us and fun for Islanders. People of all abilities can play. You have the bumpers for little kids that can be programmed [to block the gutters], so every time a kid comes up, he’s going to knock down some pins, which is always fun. There will be a bar there, of course, I guess that’s where the negativity will come. The notion that we’re trying to create a bar scene and we’re using the bowling to get by with it, it’s crazy,” he said, referring to selectman Gail Barmakian’s strongly stated concerns at the October 21 meeting.

That said, Mr. Dunn attended the meeting with attorney Howard Miller, with the hopes of securing what he thought was the last year-round liquor license in town. To his relief, chairman of the selectmen Walter Vail assured him there were a number of liquor licenses available for year-round businesses in Oak Bluffs.

“The liquor license is a no-go item,” said Mr. Dunn. “The partnership is solid. The land is under control. The equity portion is under control. But we have to obtain financing and we won’t get it without a liquor license.”

Obtaining the liquor license is only one of the many hurdles Mr. Dunn will have to clear before he can break ground, but he’s sanguine about the long road ahead. “It took 22 public hearings to get the expansion on Tisbury Marketplace,” he said. “If you love doing this, it’s just something you have to do.”

While the letters MVC strike fear in the heart of many Island builders and developers, Mr. Dunn said that overall, his experience with the MVC has been a positive one. “The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has veto power. It’s the only jurisdiction I’ve ever worked in where the rules aren’t written. It’s up for grabs. Fundamentally, I think they do a great job. Every project I’ve gone to the MVC with, has come out better than it went in. At Woodland, they suggested running the parking lot in a different direction and it really made a difference. Here, [Tisbury Marketplace expansion] they suggested we use a different kind of lighting, and it’s just much better. So my attitude is, use it as an opportunity. On the other hand, it really is anxiety creating because you can’t predict where you’re going to wind up.”

Mr. Dunn plans to make a grassroots effort to talk the the homeowners in the surrounding area. “We have to be sensitive to the fact that it abuts a residential district,” he said. “At the same time, every commercial district ends somewhere.”

Mr. Dunn, a Stanford-educated architect who designs all his projects, showed some of his preliminary sketches. Approximately 70 percent of the building will be dedicated to bowling. The 65-seat restaurant/bar will occupy the second floor, built to afford a view of the activity below.

Sewage is always an issue in Oak Bluffs, but Mr. Dunn is confident he has a solution. “We’re going to be using composting toilets,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about them since this came up. They use them in the new West Tisbury library. Apparently you empty them out once a year, and it comes out like coffee grinds. It’s all carried off site, so you’re putting practically zero into the watershed. It’s amazing.”

A new spin

Mr. Dunn also has artistic aspirations for the new building, inside and out. “This building has a 100-foot dead wall,” he said. “The idea is to turn it into some kind of art wall.”

He wants to display the work of local photographers along with historical photographs on the exterior, and change them once a year. The idea was apparently well received by the historical commission, as were his plans to make the rest of the exterior consistent with “old” Oak Bluffs. “We’ll have our own parking,” he said. “There’s very few businesses in town that have their own parking.”

Mr. Dunn also wants to put a new spin on the interior and tone of the bowling alley. “Newer bowling alleys have gotten to be very flashy, kind of loud, almost assaulting places. We’re not going to do that,” he said.

“The area between the ceiling and the pins is a very large area, usually decorated with really garish lights.” Mr. Dunn plans to use high-resolution digital projection, the format used at the film society, to show a display of photographs by Alison Shaw and other local artists. “I love Alison’s work. She wouldn’t be the only one, but her work is amazing,” he said. “What could be better than these amazing pictures of Martha’s Vineyard? They don’t change rapidly, maybe every five minutes.”

If all goes well, Mr. Dunn says the bowling alley will be up and rolling in 2015. “I think it’ll be a terrific thing for the Island,” he said. “I could see an old man bowling league for sure. I’ll be part of it myself.”